You were dead in your transgressions and sins . . . But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved) . . . (Ephesians 2:1-5).
It felt like the hottest day in mid-August. As I jogged around the neighborhood, my sweat-soaked shirt clung like a second skin. Waves of heat rippled above the asphalt. The humidity was so high, I thought I was breathing water.
That suffocating combination of heat and humidity is probably why I smelled the cat before I saw it. I rounded the corner and spotted its decaying body in weeds by the curb. Its lifeless lips tightened into a grotesque grin, and sun-bleached ribs peeked through putrefying flesh. I held my breath and picked up the pace to move past the odor.
Over the years, I’ve passed dozens of dead animals during my exercise routine, and I always ignored them. But this time – probably to keep my mind off the heat – my thoughts wandered back to the cat.
“What if someone dressed the dead cat in a silk suit and tie?” The question dropped into my mind and, for a moment, the image startled me.
“What if someone draped a gold chain around its neck and splashed expensive cologne on its face?”
I smirked at the ludicrous image. A gallon of cologne couldn’t mask the odor of death, nor could the most expensive clothes hide its appearance. Nothing short of God’s supernatural intervention could breathe the fragrance of life into that corpse.
Then the spiritual parallel swept into my mind.
Scripture repeats the message so often, it’s a wonder anyone misses it. Without Christ, we are all spiritually dead in our sins. That’s the point St. Paul tried to impress on his readers in Ephesus: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). The Greek word the apostle used to emphasize their condition before God made them alive in Christ (v. 4) is nekros. It’s the same word from which English speakers get necrotic.
In other words, before God’s intervention, they were necrotic. And without His intervention through Christ, so are we. It doesn’t matter who we are, or what we have – academic degrees, religious titles or affiliation, hefty bank accounts, political power, or praise from others. Without Christ, we stink (Isaiah 64:6; 2 Corinthians 2:15,16), and God can smell us on the other side of the universe. Nothing short of His supernatural power exercised through His Son gives us life.
The Bible calls it being, “born anew” (John 3:1-7, 1 Peter 1:3). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims: One becomes a member of this people not by a physical birth, but by being “born anew," a birth "of water and the Spirit," that is, by faith in Christ, and Baptism” (Para 782).
Being compared to a dead animal was not a proud moment for me. But the dead cat image captured my attention and gave me a glimpse of God’s ineffable mercy, because regardless of the depth, breadth, and frequency of our sins, God’s grace can cleanse us. By our faith in Christ – and in no other -- God clothes us in glistening robes at our baptism and, through our ongoing confession and repentance, breathes life into our necrotic corpse (Isaiah 61:10).
No one smells so badly that Jesus’ blood cannot transform the odor of decay into the sweet fragrance of eternal life.
We have Scripture’s promise about it. But we also have Scripture’s warning:
Jesus is not the best way to heaven. He is the only way.
And as the Church states, To return to communion with God after having lost it through sin, is a process born of the grace of God . . . . One must ask for this precious gift for oneself and for others (Para 1489).